Major US casino companies have been jockeying for position in Pennsylvania since the state passed a comprehensive gambling expansion law in October 2017.
Among the many PA gambling expansion measures approved in the new law are various forms of online gaming, video gaming terminals (VGTs) at truck stops, and mini-casinos a fair distance from existing gambling operations.
The state decided Pennsylvania casinos will get first crack at licenses for most of these gambling expansion measures. As a result, several US casino companies have bought their way into the market recently in an effort to take advantage.
In fact, in the first six months after the state passed its new gambling expansion law, four Pennsylvania casinos saw a change in ownership. This includes:
- Meadows Racetrack & Casino, acquired by Penn National Gaming as part of its $2.8 billion acquisition of Pinnacle Entertainment in December 2017
- Valley Forge Casino Resort, purchased by Boyd Gaming in December 2017
- Presque Isle Downs & Casino, purchased by Churchill Downs at the end of February 2018
- Sands Bethlehem, purchased by Alabama tribal casino group Wind Creek in March 2018
Casino companies want in, online
In almost all of these cases, the new ownership groups have said the opportunity presented by the legalization of online gaming in PA is why they wanted in. However, several of these and other casino companies with existing ownership interests in the state have been actively pursuing other expansion initiatives approved in the new law.
The gambling industry is clearly growing in PA and that growth is being led by some of the biggest casino companies in the country. Of course, there several major US casino companies on the outside looking in. Many of which have taken a long hard look at PA previously and may want in before long.
Here’s a look at three US casino companies that aren’t in PA, but are culprits to get in business there before long:
Next to Sands Las Vegas, which recently dropped out of the PA casino industry, MGM Resorts International is the top-grossing casino company in the country.
Its global portfolio includes 27 hotel and casino properties. It is in the middle of an expansion, building the $950 million MGM Springfield in Massachusetts, MGM COTAI in Macau, and planning to debut the first international Bellagio-branded hotel in Shanghai, China.
However, the company currently has no casino property PA, despite it being in the second-highest grossing casino market in the US.
MGM and Sands
It’s certainly not for lack of trying. In fact, before Sands Bethlehem was sold to Alabama tribal casino group Wind Creek in March 2018, MGM was widely rumored to be buying the property.
MGM Resorts pulled out of discussions to buy Sands Bethlehem in May 2017. At the time, it was widely speculated MGM wanted in the PA casino business because the state was considering passing online gambling legislation. Sands may have wanted out for the same reason.
However, further gambling expansion measures being considered, outside of those to be run by casinos, including tablet gambling in airports and fantasy sports, may have been a factor in MGM ending discussions to buy Sands Bethlehem.
Now that the legislation has passed, MGM may want in PA, but Sands is off the market.
The sale price in the Sands-MGM deal was reportedly hovering around $1.3 billion. An amount that seems reasonable considering MGM’s already heavy commitment to the Northeast casino industry.
Its $950 million MGM Springfield project is set to open in the fall of 2018. Plus, in December 2016, MGM opened the $1.4 billion MGM National Harbor resort in Maryland. In 2016, MGM bought also out Boyd Gaming’s 50-percent interest in Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City New Jersey and expanded online gambling operations there.
Pennsylvania would be a next logical step for both the company’s land-based and online gambling operations. However, with Sands Bethlehem being sold to another gaming company already, where it can possibly get in the market is anybody’s guess.
Wynn Resorts is one of the top five grossing casino companies in the country. Plus, it has taken a long hard look at Pennsylvania before.
Wynn owns and operates casino resorts in Macau and Las Vegas. This includes
- Wynn Macau
- (Macau) Wynn Palace
- Wynn Las Vegas
- (Las Vegas) Encore
The company is also in the middle of building the $2.4 billion Encore Boston Harbor (formerly Wynn Boston Harbor) in Everett, Massachusetts. It is scheduled to open in 2019. However, Encore Boston Harbor isn’t the first time Wynn Resorts considered expanding to the Northeastern US. In fact, the company has been close to building in PA more than once.
Philadelphia’s second casino
The state issued two licenses for casinos to be built in the city of Philadelphia in December 2006. One went to HSP Gaming, LP, which eventually opened up SugarHouse Casino in the city’s Fishtown neighborhood along the Delaware River in September 2010.
The other went to Philadelphia Entertainment & Development Partners, a development group owned in part by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe’s Foxwoods Development Corporation. The Tribe owns and operates Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut, the second-largest casino in the US.
The plan was for the Tribe to run Foxwoods Casino Philadelphia, a 3,000-slot facility to be built in South Philadelphia. But that plan soon fell through. Neighborhood opposition forced Foxwoods to move the proposed site to the Gallery at Market East shopping center in downtown Philadelphia. However, similar problems arose.
In February 2010, with little forward momentum almost four years after the casino license was granted, Casino mogul and then Wynn Resorts CEO Steve Wynn was brought in as the project’s new managing partner. Wynn announced plans to move the project back to its original South Philadelphia location. He even presented that plan to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. However, three days later, Wynn Resorts pulled out.
Later that year Harrah’s Entertainment, which is now Caesars Entertainment, expressed interest in a one-third stake in the project, but it pulled out before ever officially signing on.
With no other financing in place, the development stalled and the gaming board eventually revoked the license. The license went up for action and Wynn Resorts suddenly wanted in PA again.
Wynn wants in again
Wynn Resorts was one of six companies that applied for the license. It proposed to build a 150,000-square-foot casino with 900 slot machines and 100 table games in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood, just a stone’s throw from SugarHouse. Wynn also planned a 300-room hotel on about 60 acres of waterfront land. The cost of the entire project was estimated to be upwards of $925 million.
However, before the gaming board had a chance to pick a winner, Wynn Resorts quit the game again. In fact, the company withdrew its application for a casino license saying it wanted to pursue business opportunities elsewhere. The Philadelphia market performance and the competition from the approval of new commercial gaming operations in the State of New York were cited as factors in the decision to pull out this time.
Stadium Casino, LLC eventually won the auction for the casino license in November 2014. The company is a partnership between Greenwood Gaming and Entertainment, owners of the state’s top-grossing casino, Parx, and Cordish Companies, which owns and operates Live!-branded casinos, hotels, and entertainment venues across the US. It is now building Stadium Casino, originally branded Live! Hotel and Casino Philadelphia, a $600 million casino, hotel, and entertainment complex slated to open in South Philadelphia’s Stadium District in the year 2020.
Wynn Resorts’ decision to pull its bid meant for the second time in three years Wynn Resorts had both appeared interested in the Pennsylvania casino market and pulled out. With the factors cited in that decision changing all the time, the minds of Wynn Resorts’ board could easily change along with them.
By most accounts, Wynn Resorts is likely to drop out again before anything concrete happens. But they are also favorites to want in the PA casino business again before long.
Nevada-based Golden Entertainment was already the largest gambling tavern and slot route operator in the country when it expanded its casino business in October 2017, buying American Casino & Entertainment Properties and its three casinos for $850 million, including the iconic Stratosphere Las Vegas.
Golden Entertainment now owns and operates as many as 16,000 gaming devices and 114 table games. Plus, it’s got 5,162 hotel rooms across the country. It owns eight casino resorts. This includes seven in Southern Nevada and one in Maryland. Its distributed gaming business includes the almost half the gas station and alternative location slot routes in Nevada. Plus, another 2,800 VGTs on slot routes in Montana. Additionally, Golden Entertainment operates VGTs at nearly 1,000 locations in 60 traditional taverns in Nevada. Most notably under the PT’s Pub brand.
The Company also recently secured a license from the Illinois Gaming Board to operate VGTs at Illinois bars, restaurants, truck stops, social clubs, and veterans organizations.
It’s still not clear exactly how it plans to do it, but Golden Entertainment clearly wants to expand its VGT and distributed gaming business. Which means it could also be eyeing the possibilities in Pennsylvania.
What makes the Illinois VGT Industry so attractive is its size. VGT gaming launched in Illinois in 2013 after state lawmakers authorized any establishment licensed to serve alcohol in a municipality where VGTs are permitted to house up to five.
It has since grown to include almost 27,000 VGTs operating statewide and the revenues have grown along with it. In fact, for the first time ever, VGTs actually generated more tax revenue for the state than Illinois’ 10 riverboat casinos last year.
The same thing isn’t likely to happen in Pennsylvania just yet. The new gambling expansion law includes the authorization for VGTs at approved truck stops. However, there are strict limits on VGTs in the state. This ensures the legal and regulated VGT industry will not grow anywhere Illinois’ at this point.
It is estimated there are up to 40,000 illegal VGTs operating in Pennsylvania bars, restaurants, and social clubs. The new law won’t add too many more of the legal variety.
State lawmakers considered authorizing legal VGTs at licensed establishments in PA. Much the same way they do in Illinois. However, they stopped at truck stops. Plus, they put restrictions on eligibility:
Eligible truck stops must:
- Have diesel islands and sell an average of 50,000 gallons of diesel a month
- Include 20 parking spaces for trucks
- Have a convenience store
- Maintain a three-acre parcel of land or more not owned by the Pennsylvania Turnpike
- Be licensed as a Pennsylvania Lottery sales agent
A Golden opportunity?
The truth is, there’s likely only 120 truck stop sites in the state that will qualify. At most, that means 600 legal VGTs will open up. Experts estimate up to 8,000 of the state’s 12,000 liquor licensees might have applied to install VGTs. If the state had approved them. That would have mean 40,000 VGTs.
The 600 legal VGTs at truck stops in PA may not be enough to attract Golden Entertainment. However, some 40,000 VGTs certainly would be.
State lawmakers looking to shut down illegal VGT operations still see expansion to liquor-licensed establishments as the answer. Truck stop VGTs may just the first step towards that. Companies like Golden Entertainment are likely to want to get in business there. But only if lawmakers can take another step in that direction in the near future.